Theater Shelf: CDs Reviews Leap Of Faith, Chaplin And More

Theater Shelf, a recurring feature, reviews recently-released books, CDs and DVDs of interest to theater lovers. Some are popular titles like a new Original Cast Recording, others are works you’ll be intrigued by, but didn’t even know about.

By Brad Hathaway

Leap of Faith — Original Broadway Cast Recording

We have Ghostlight Records to thank for capturing a moment in Broadway’s history. Their release of the original Broadway cast recording of Leap of Faith is not only a first-class documentation of a first-class score, it commemorates something that has never happened before.

In 1955, the Tony Awards started announcing nominations, rather than simply announcing the recipients of the award for Best Musical. Since then, there had never been two shows by the same composer nominated in the same year – until now.

The nominees for the 2012 Tony Award for Best Musical included both Newsies, the score for which was composed by Alan Menken with lyrics by Jack Feldman, and Leap of Faith with a score by Menken and lyricist Glenn Slater.

Neither won – the award went to the Irish pub musical Once – but it was an historic moment nonetheless.

Menken may be getting used to being nominated in this category but not winning. In 2011, Sister Act with his music and Glenn Slater’s lyrics was also a nominee. He didn’t have to feel too bad in 2012, however. He took home the Tony for best score which was awarded to Newsies.

As it turned out, all three of the shows – Sister Act, Newsies and Leap of Faith – were playing at the same time. This is a rare event on Broadway. Stephen Schwartz had three up at the same time in the 1970s (Pippin, The Magic Show and Godspell) and Frank Wildhorn had a trifecta going not too long ago. Then, of course, there have been a number of times that Andrew Lloyd Webber pulled it off, most recently last year when Phantom of the Opera, Evita and Jesus Christ Superstar were all on the boards at the same time. But that’s about it in recent times.

While Newsies ended up with the Tony Award for Best Original Score Written for the Theatre, Leap of Faith not only ended up with no award to take home on Tony night, it had already closed before the ceremony. It had a total of only 44 performances at the St. James Theatre on West 44th Street – 25 of which were previews.

So, what went wrong? That is probably a question to be answered by someone who actually saw the show,  not someone reviewing the original cast recording. (Editor’s note: To read our review, click here)  Some attribute it to the fact that its producers had to move the opening up from the fall to the spring when the earlier show in the theater, the woefully received revival of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever closed abruptly. That may not have given the creative team enough time to fix problems that the pre-Broadway production in Los Angeles made clear. Or perhaps the problem was that it didn’t give the marketing team enough time to mount a successful campaign to drum up advance sales.

On the basis of the recording, the financial failure of the production remains a mystery. What one finds on this recording and in its well constructed booklet, is ample strength in the music, lyrics and performances to make the short run a surprise.

Menken’s music echoes the gospel revival style you would expect for all the scenes sung with full chorus, but modifies it with a southern/country pop sound for the more intimate moments between individual characters. It comes as no surprise that Menken knows how to build a number to carry an audience along for extended periods. He’s been doing it for decades (think Beauty and the Beast, The Little Mermaid, Little Shop of Horrors not to mention movies like Aladdin, Pocahontas, the Hunchback of Notre Dame or Tangled that haven’t had Broadway adaptations) but there is a sense of surefootedness in the personal moments that is unusually impressive here.

Slater’s lyrics are notable not only for the clever use of vernacular English, but for the way they move the plot forward or reveal the essence of essential characters. More of the songs here than you find in many musicals are full scenes set to music rather than traditional 32-bar, two and a half minute, AABA songs. There are just 20 tracks on the album but nine of them – nearly half – are in excess of four minutes long. Three are more than five minutes long. These feature extended lyrics that efficiently deliver the important elements of crucial scenes.

This isn’t to say that all of them are as finely polished as possible. Slater puts an occasional inappropriate word into the mouth of a character in order to accommodate a rhyme. For example, a down home country sheriff who admits to never seeing big city lights is not likely to say she “ain’t seen ’em, I’ll attest” rather than “I admit” but Slater needed “attest” to rhyme with the last word in “I’ve barely left the nest.”

However, for every instance of a word choice that calls out for a good polish, there are two nifty images or twists. Consider: “I’m the lowest of all the lowly! The baddest of all of the bad! My criminal record is so friggin’ checkered, its plaid!” or “Even Helen Keller could see through you.”

The performances are all satisfying, with Miamian Raúl Esparza hitting just the right ingratiating charm for the role of a slick swindler running a revival con designed to take the poor people of drought-stricken Sweetwater for all they are worth (which is admittedly not much) while Jessica Phillips is assuredly in charge in public as the local sheriff but tenderly approachable in private as a romance develops between the two of them. Add Kendra Kassebaum with a sly sense of humor as the con man’s sister, who prompts him over a Bluetooth earpiece with all the revelations he makes thar seem come from some sort of divine intervention. Big voiced gospel belters add to the mix.

Particularly impressive is the sound of the 25-player orchestra with a thumping underscore driven by four woodwinds, three trumpets/flugels and the trombone and bass trombone of Timothy Sessions. The orchestrations by Michael Starobin and Joseph Joubert, and the vocal arrangements of Michael Kosarin, give a very hefty feel for the entire proceeding.

We’ve been extremely lucky in the number of new Broadway musicals this year that have been captured with cast recordings, either from their Broadway run or from an earlier London production. Only Scandalous seems destined to go undocumented.

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Leap of Faith
Original Broadway Cast Recording
Ghostlight Records
Running time 1:12 over 20 tracks
Packaged with synopsis, notes, lyrics and 19 color photos
ASIN: B009XY1WAQ
List price $14.99 (disc) $11.99 (download)

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Chaplin: The Musical –Original Broadway Cast Recording

It is a classic good news / bad news situation. Just as the original Broadway cast album of Chaplin: The Musical starts its entry into the music market, the show it documents begins its departure.

Masterworks Broadway is releasing the recording for digital download, but the physical disc won’t be in stores until January 8. That will be just two days after the show plays its last performance at the Barrymore Theatre on New York’s 47th Street.

This is the second new musical to premiere on Broadway this season. It is also the second to have an original Broadway Cast album. The album for Bring It On, which opened at the St. James Theatre in August, was released in October. That show, however, was announced as a limited run so the fact that it is closing on December 30 is less disappointing than the announcement that Chaplin will close January 6.

Chaplin drew more approval for the performance of its star, Rob McClure, than for the show itself. But based on the evidence provided in the nicely done recording, it offers a score that is a pleasure to hear.

It is the first stage musical score by its composer/lyricist/bookwriter, Chris Curtis. He’s a television and movie songwriter who bills himself on his website as: “Singer/Songwriter/Author/Composer/Lyricist/Arranger.” In short, a musical jack of all trades.

That website says he “was signed to the songwriting program at Disney Animation.” He seems to have learned his lessons well and brought some real talent to his chores. This being his first stage musical, it isn’t surprising that he doesn’t seem to have found his own voice yet, however. Musically, some of the songs sound like they were composed on the frame of another composer’s approach. A few have a faint feeling of John Kander’s work with Fred Ebb. Some others, Jerry Herman. Still others, Stephen Flaherty. Lyrically, each stakes out its message and drives it home without much ado. Subtlety isn’t one of Curtis’ tools and he seems to fill in the blanks between his rhymes with an eye toward how many beats he needs to fill. But each song plays its role in the overall storytelling and they all add up to a satisfying whole.

While he’s listed as composer, lyricist and book writer on Chaplin, he has a colleague in the later function, a book writer who is far from making his debut on Broadway. That would be Thomas Meehan, who has no fewer than three musicals playing on Broadway right now. In addition to co-writing Chaplin, he’s the author of Annie which is being revived at the Palace, and the co-author with Bob Martin of Elf, which is holding forth again this year at the Al Hirschfeld. The eight other Broadway credits to his name include the huge hits The Producers and Hairspray as well as less successful efforts like Bombay Dreams, Cry-Baby and Young Frankenstein. In all of these, he has shown a propensity for crafting musicals that are strong in the story-telling function, and that build a solid dramatic arc while landing as many laughs as the project needs. His touch is evident here as well.

The story they are telling is the life of Charlie Chaplin. Like all bio-musicals, it attempts to find the dramatic arc and then streamline the story to something just over two hours. In this case, it is the poor English lad with a mother coming unbalanced by the pressures of a marriage to an alcoholic. To earn her approval, the lad finds a talent for comedy which leads to success in English music halls and a call from Hollywood to make “flickers” for Mack Sennett. In front of Sennett’s cameras he creates the role of “The Little Tramp” that becomes an international phenomenon, and makes him the first real movie star. But his failure to court the likes of Hollywood columnist Hedda Hopper and his left-of-center political views lead to his exile from the U.S. The story comes to an end at the final curtain with the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences bestowing on him an Oscar for lifetime achievements twenty-some years later. The show doesn’t seem to deal much with the sexual scandals that contributed to the banishment but, hey, they just have two hours before they have to launch into the anthem-like finale “This Man.”

The recording gives us a chance to witness the vocal portion of the much praised performance of Rob McClure, who made a splash in the Encores! concert staging of Where’s Charley, and who the country came to know when he toured as Rod and Princeton in the national touring company of Avenue Q. Without the visual aspects of his appearance as the famous Charlie Chaplin, the movement he brings to the dance numbers and the connecting tissue of the dialog scenes, the glimpses we get on the disc aren’t enough to create a fully formed portrait of a man of Chaplin’s complexity. However, each song he sings is undeniably well delivered.

The supporting cast is quite strong. Christiane Noll who was nominated for the Best Actress in a Musical Tony in 2010 for her performance as “Mother” in the revival of Ragtime, plays another mother – Charlie’s mentally deteriorating mum. The creative team did a smart thing in giving her the opening number, the recurring “Look At All The People.”

The super-talented Jenn Colella gives yet another memorable portrayal in a short-lived musical. She made her Broadway debut as Sissy in the country-pop musical version of Urban Cowboy that played the Broadhurst for nearly three months in 2003, and then she starred in High Fidelity at the Imperial for its less-than-a-month run in 2006. Here she’s the ruthless Hedda Hopper who sets out to ruin Chaplin.

Other members of the cast who make an impression include Erin Mackey and Michael McCormick. Mackey sings Chaplin’s praises in “What Only Love Can See” as Oona O’Neill who was the daughter of Eugene O’Neill. She was Chaplin’s last wife and the mother of his eight children.  McCormick is Mack Sennett who teaches the talented young Charlie Chaplin to act in the movies in “Sennett Song” and then recognizes it when Chaplin’s talents exceed what he could teach in the “Tramp Shuffle.”

Using a full sounding pit orchestra with arrangements by Curtis and Bryan Perri orchestrated by Larry Hochman, the entire package sounds like the big Broadway bio-musical it is. One that fits the traditional mold with catchy tunes for the lighter moments and lush melodies for the touching ones. Those who, like me, enjoy just such a sound will find a lot to like in this recording and may find they are listening to it many times, for it just seems to get better with repeated hearing.

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Chaplin: The Musical
Original Broadway Cast Album
Masterworks Broadway
Running time 52:12 over 20 tracks
Available for download December 4

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The Land Where The Good Songs Go
Studio Cast Recording

Quick! Buy a copy of this recording which was released today and give it to the artistic director of your favorite local theater company that produces its own musical shows. Tell him or her that The Land Where The Good Songs Go should be their next revue, and that they should ask whichever licensing house they work with the most to obtain the show for their catalog.

It begins rapturously with the entire company delivering the title song. It hails from Kern’s 1917 show Oh Boy!. That was one of “The Princess Theatre Shows” that Kern, P. G. Wodehouse and Guy Bolton provided for the intimate (299 seats) theater on 39th Street where there wasn’t room for spectacle and huge orchestras, but where audiences responded to charm, intelligence and a new tunefulness.

What follows is a delectable collection of over thirty songs that Kern crafted with a range of lyricists between 1907 and his death in 1945.

Among the Kern standards (and who wrote more standards than Kern?) in the collection are “They Didn’t Believe Me,” “A Fine Romance,” “All The Things You Are,” “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes,” and a combined “Till The Clouds Roll By” and “Look For The Silver Lining.” But it is the little (or un)known gems that capture the mind and enrapture the heart of not just lovers of melody but of light verse.

James O’Dea’s lyric for “The Subway Express” (from 1907’s Fascinating Flora) propels a couple from first glance to romance along the stops of the subway from lower Manhattan’s Spring Street to the Bronx.

Wodehouse’s little ditty “We’re Crooks” (from Miss 1917) sings the praise of simple theft by contrasting it to other professions which have long come in for nearly slanderous disapproval:

We are crooks like you read about in books
We collar everything on which we lay our hooks
If you leave your door unlocked we come inside
but we never could be lawyers
for we’ve got some proper pride.

And we’re crooks like you read about in books
We’re strong on intellect but maybe not on looks
and our rhymes at times are things to shudder at
But we’ve never been in Congress for we draw the line at that.

We are crooks like you read about in books
We collar everything on which we lay our hooks
Tho’ your silver spoons and jewels we collect
we’ve never worked on Wall Street
For we have some self respect.

This delightful package isn’t simply a collection of Kern songs, however – as wonderful as that might have been. Instead, it is an attempt to use a sampling of his astonishing output to tell a story so that the songs can be experienced in the mode for which they were written – as songs that serve a purpose in a show. Toward that end, the author Ed Wilson (The Theatre Experience; Theater: The Lively Art; and, Living Theatre: Histories of Theatre,) director Stafford Arima (who directed the recent re-emergence of the musical Carrie) and conductor/music director David Loud (Ragtime, Master Class) structured the revue as the story of three couples who meet, fall in love, mate or not and live with the consequences.

The songs serve to define the personalities of the six characters, tell their story and track the timeline. For instance, what better way to say “We’re now in World War II” than to have the cast singing Oscar Hammerstein’s touching lyric that is so well served by Kern’s tune for “The Last Time I Saw Paris?”

The stimulus to all this dramaturgy seems to have been the idea of David Loud’s to link the standard, the classic “I love him just because he’s him” song “Bill,” to a little known Kern number titled “Bill’s a Liar” – it certainly puts a new twist on the classic.  From there, Loud and his collaborators found Kern songs that fit their scenario and, in each case, the fact that the song is being used for its intended function of storytelling makes each a fresh, new experience.

Just how successful the revue’s book works can’t be told from the recording even if it is a two-disc set. That would require at least a script and at best a full production to watch.

But PS Classics have done their usual fine job on packaging. Someone found an essay that none other than Stephen Sondheim wrote back in 1957 about the songwriting of Jerome Kern and got him to update it a bit. It is detailed and technical enough to add to the understanding of Kern’s work for musically sophisticated readers, while it is put in clear enough language to be a fine introduction to Kern’s magic for those who love music but may not know that much about its technical elements.

Add a full synopsis of the revue’s slender plot line, a note on the origin of the revue itself from Musical Director/Arranger David Loud, and a track listing that includes the source for each of the songs, and you have a handsome and useful booklet. In the fine print you will learn that the revue began life at the Benjamin T. Rome School of Music at the Catholic University of America as part of Jane Pesci-Townsend’s Excellence in Music Theater Program. There it had a cast of students in the graduate program including Kurt Boehm, Lauren Williams and other CUA students.

The cast on the recording is a collection of superb professionals. Rebecca Luker (who was Magnolia in the 1994 revival of Kern and Hammerstein’s Show Boat) is incredibly lovely on “Go, Little Boat” and funny on “Ain’t It Funny What a Difference Just a Few Drinks Make?” Philip Chaffin and Kate Baldwin are delectable together on “All The Things You Are” and Heidi Blickenstaff, Graham Rowat and Matthew Scott each have moments that make you check the booklet to see just who was doing such a good job.

All of this is backed by a small orchestra of two violins, a cello, bass, two woodwinds, drums and the piano of Jihwan Kim in tasty arrangements by Loud that support the vocals with a maximum of good taste and a minimum of distraction.

When buying a copy for the artistic director of your local theater company, order a second one for yourself so it can take its rightful place on your theater shelf.

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The Land Where The Good Songs Go
PS Classics catalog PS-1211
Running time 1:24 over 30 tracks on two discs
Packaged with notes and synopsis
ASIN: B009HTZNNY
List price $15.95

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One Man, Two Guvnors – Original Cast Recording

The Tony Awards ceremonies are most interesting for collectors of “show music” when they announce the winner of the award for “Best Original Score (Music and/or Lyrics) Written for the Theatre.” Last spring, there were four nominees, but only two of them were scores of musicals: Alan Menkin and Jack Feldman’s Newsies and Frank Wildhorn and Don Black’s Bonnie & Clyde. The other two – Wayne Barker and Rick Elice’s score for Peter and the Starcatcher and Grant Olding’s songs for One Man, Two Guvnors were songs written for plays.

What is the difference?

A musical is generally understood to be a live theatrical piece that uses songs to at least help tell the story: The characters reveal themselves in song. The plots play out in song. At least some of the information the audience needs in order to follow the story comes in song.

A play, on the other hand, even one that might be subtitled “a play with music,” could be performed without the music and still make sense. The score – if it is any good – certainly makes a contribution to the experience of seeing the show, but it isn’t necessary in order for the audience to follow the story.

Of the two nominees that aren’t musicals, only one had been given a commercial recording and I’m told that there isn’t even a plan to issue a recording of the score for Peter and the Starcatcher – a sort of prequel to Peter Pan. As a result, only those who make it to the theater will get to know just what sea shanties and pirate songs make up this “score.”

But you don’t need to make it to the theater to get to know the other music for a non-musical. The DRG label has issued an original cast recording of the score for One Man, Two Guvnors, a British farce of the first order. The play was an almost painfully funny (at least during the first act) adaptation of a Commedia dell’Arte classic, Carlo Goldoni’s mid-18th century harlequin comedy A Servant of Two Masters. The National Theatre of Great Britain’s Nicholas Hytner staged Richard Bean’s adaptation which set the confusion in the town of Brighton in the early 1960s.

Taking its musical cue from a minor point in the principal character’s past (he’d once been a player in a skiffle band) Hytner asked composer Grant Olding to come up with a dozen or so songs that could warm up the audience before the actual play got underway and then be brought back between scenes to boost the energy level. It turned out that the manic performances of Tony nominees James Corden and Tom Edden and their colleagues made it something between unnecessary and impossible to boost the energy level, but the songs are still great fun and give the audience a chance to wipe the tears of laughter from their eyes and refill their lungs before the next onslaught of comedy.

Olding says that Hytner told him to think of the project as “a Carry On film with an early Beatles soundtrack.” This is not a bad description of the final result, although strictly speaking, the Beatles never really were a skiffle band. It was the predecessor group called The Quarrymen with John Lennon, Paul McCartney and George Harrison which was billed as a band that blended elements of skiffle (without its early trademark washboard percussion) with a rockabilly sound. The Quarrymen became “The Beatles” when they took their act to Hamburg, and punched up its rock quotient and brought in drummer, Ringo Star.

DRG’s Original London Cast album features the four player band which performs as the skiffle band “The Crave” at the National Theatre of Great Britain. The entire cast of actors and actresses made the transfer to Broadway’s Music Box Theatre but – whether due to union restrictions, economics or simply producers’ preferences – these musicians stayed in London and a new quartet was recruited in New York.

The band on the recording is led by Grant Olding who wrote all the songs and is featured as the lead vocalist.

The meat of the album is a baker’s dozen of infectious, up-tempo, good natured rock ‘n roll songs that sound as if they were recorded in England sometime between 1956 when Lonnie Donegan’s Skiffle Group had hits like “Rock Island Line” and “Does Your Chewing Gum Loose Its Flavour (On The Bedpost Overnight)?” and 1964 when The Beatles’ Hard Day’s Night was really the last collection of theirs that drew from the legacy of the sounds of the likes of the Everly Brothers and Buddy Holly. They are fun in the theater and they are fun on the album.

Twelve of the numbers are lead by Olding but one is a trio for the three leading ladies in the cast, Claire Lams, Jemima Rooper and Suzie Toase who make “Lighten Up and Lay Low” feel like a familiar girl-group number of the period such as the hits of The Marvelettes or The Shirelles.

As in the show, the entire cast is heard in the finale, a surprisingly restrained round titled “Tomorrow Looks Good From Here” that folds many of the gags of the show into the early Beatles type sound of the band. It seemed to me that this number was a rollicking good time when the show was streamed into theaters as part of the National Theatre Live project. On the disc it is a shorter, less rambunctious 2:13. (It is followed by a 37-second “bonus track” of a calypso riff on steel drum that is one of the other gags in the show.)

The album is packaged with a booklet of photos and some notes but no lyrics or synopsis. What is more bothersome is that the running time is not disclosed in the packaging. At only 34 minutes, it is one of the shortest original cast albums in quite a while.

It’s not quite what you expect from an original cast album – but, then, we don’t get a lot of original cast albums of scores from non-musicals.

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One Man, Two Guvnors
Original Cast Recording
DRG Catalog # DRG CD 19882
Running time 34 minutes over 14 tracks
ASIN: B007HM338K
Price $11.99

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